Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17 year old girl, Hannah who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the fifteenth and final in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.
Hannah decides to kill herself, if one more attempt to reach out doesn’t work. She talked to the school counselor who suggested, without realizing the emotional state she was in, that the police wouldn’t take her sexual assault seriously. Hannah is shown graphically slitting her wrists in a bath tub. The episode ends with the kids on the tapes trying to move forward with their lives, not all of it hopeful. This episode (and the entire series) makes a case for the importance of being an agent of kindness in the world and the how just noticing the people who are around you every day can make a positive impact.
Random Acts of Kindness.
Being kind to others should not be something reserved only for people you love and care about. Kindness is a core element that binds human communities together. That is why it is a basic tenant of all major religions (e.g., the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Communities that don’t value kindness (and compassion and justice) will devolve into chaos and violence. Your kid (like all of us) needs to be someone who makes positive contributions to the community. When communities are small and family-like there is an incentive to being kind (and not being a jerk); people will know and you will suffer in the future for it. In the large, anonymous communities we now inhabit, you could be a jerk and get away with it for a long time. Being kind and polite to the others has to be a civic responsibility, something to be done for the sake of the community not because you will get in trouble. That means your kid will need to be taught that being a good person means being a kind person.
What’s a parent to do?
Take some time to teach your kid about what it means to be a good citizen in a democratic society. In a free society, people are not forced to behave well, they are just expected to. Citizens are expected to contribute to the common good through kindness. Talk to your kid about the responsibilities of being a citizen of a great democracy. Help them appreciate that you are obligated to not only benefit from all that our country affords us but to also make positive contributions. The concept of random acts of kindness (i.e., doing nice things for people you don’t know and are unlikely to ever see again) is one way for your kid to practice this civic responsibility. Studies have found that a single act of “selfless” kindness (i.e., kind acts that don’t have any practical benefit for the kind person and requires some kind of sacrifice, however small, for the recipient) is payed forward by the next 3 people. Random acts of kindness are a way to make positive contributions. Talk about the small kindnesses a person can do for others in the course of their day. Ask your kid on a regular basis about what small kindnesses they did during the course of the day. Have them think about what small kindnesses were done for them that day.
Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct by P. M. Forni
Human beings need validation from and interaction with other people. We need to be “seen.” Being cut off from human validation can literally drive you crazy. So it is not surprising that one of the more effective ways for kids to punish someone is to intentionally ignore them, to cast them out from the group. And then there are some kids who are socially ignored because they are shy, reserved, new to the school or just haven’t found their people yet. Regardless, the effect of social isolation, of their presence not being acknowledged by others in the social context, leads to depression, anxiety, insecurity and feelings of worthlessness. So often, teens (and the rest of us) hold back from expressing some positive or complimentary thought about another person because we don’t know them and fear they may reject us. (See how powerful rejection can be?!) This could even be one of the topics of discussion about missed opportunities (See the blog on Missed Opportunities). This final episode of 13 Reasons Why presents the culmination of what can happen when teens spend their days surrounded by people but are not seen, not validated for who they are or who are characterized as someone they are not.
What’s a parent to do?
It can be surprising how little it takes to make a difference in another person’s life. Kids don’t realize that a “nobody” like them could actually have an impact. Just the simple act of saying “hi” to someone they don’t know but who they pass on a regular basis can lift that person’s spirit. Mentioning something they notice about another person (e.g., “That’s a cool jacket.”) could be the small, seemingly insignificant comment that makes that person’s day. Talk to your kid about the importance of acknowledging people, especially people who are on the margins of social groups (or of society). These days, kids have an even easier way to acknowledge people by “friending” them. This doesn’t mean your kid has to form a close, lasting friendship. It is about treating someone like they actually matter, like they are worth speaking to by looking for an opportunity to just exchange pleasant words with someone who seems left out (or who your kid knows is left out).
The effects of solitary confinement
The effects of social isolation
Pay it forward, it works.
We have finally come to the end of the emotional roller coaster of this teen video series. Part of what makes this series so powerful is its portrayal of the range of difficult and traumatic things that can happen during adolescence and the ways kids try to make sense of these tragic experiences. Parents play a pivotal role in their kid’s life because they love them, keep an eye on them and have the experience and wisdom to help them navigate the challenges life throws at them. A well-produced, compelling series like 13 Reasons Why can provide an opportunity to address issues your teen can face before they go through them (or to talk about things they have gone through you don’t know about yet). Hopefully, this series of blogs on 13 Things to Talk to Your Teen about 13 Reasons Why has provided you with some useful ideas on how to talk to your kid about these important things.
Hug your kid. Often.
Note to reader: The teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.